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Download article: Feeding Layer Chickens

More detail about feeding layers below


Broiler Feeds
Layer Feeds
Mixed Grain
What to Feed, When
Breeder Flocks
Backyard ChickensBackyard chickens
How to Feed
     Baby Chicks
     Juveniles and Adults

Available FeedsFeed illustration

Broadly, there are three categories of feed available commercially:

Processed feed generally comes in two varieties:Pellets illustration

WaterChicken Drinker

Strictly speaking water is a food, perhaps the most important food for living beings. Chickens can survive a few days without feed, but not for long without clean water.

Make sure birds can actually access the water!

Feeds are generally aimed at three stages of development:

Very young birds are too small to eat pellets and have to be fed mash. Therefore "starter" feeds are always in the form of a mash.

Pellets have the advantage that birds cannot "cherry-pick" just the tasty morsels and have to eat the total mix in the intended proportions. The disadvantage is that they cannot select feed types they may have a shortage of and thus have a craving for.

The biggest advantage of pellets are that they are generally less wasteful than mash.

To get the best of both worlds, occasionally substitute, or mix, pellets with a "mixed grain" ration. Also to be considered in your choice of a suitable feed is what the aim of the operation is. This is discussed below. Go Top

Broiler Feeds

Broiler imageBroiler feeds are specifically formulated to ensure rapid growth. Contains various chemicals such as growth stimulants, steroids, antibiotics and a "coccidiostat".

Not the feed for natural free range producers!

It is for this reason that broiler rations are so much more expensive.

"Finisher" products were originally designed to be free of these chemicals, theoretically to allow for a suitable withdrawal period to make the chicken meat safe for human consumption. However, the entire lifespan of the broiler is so short (nowadays they are slaughtered as young as 39 days old); and the competition to produce a broiler heavy enough at this slaughter age so intense, that you are unlikely to find broiler meat totally free of these contaminants.

However, should your birds suddenly loose condition or there is a sudden inexplicable rise in mortality of especially young growing birds, you may have a coccidiosis problem and the short-term (one week or so) feeding of a commercial broiler grower ration may solve your problem until you can solve the long-term issues to contain the coccidiosis outbreak, which is essentially a management issue. Go Top

Layer Feeds

Download: Feeding Layer Chickens

Henn & eggsEggs from layer birds are sold to the consumer over the entire life of the bird and there is no practical identifiable withdrawal period to ensure chemical-free eggs for human consumption in an industrial production environment. Hence layer feeds are generally free of the chemicals and stimulants found in broiler feeds; or so we hope.

This is taken to the extreme that in South Africa there are no registered deworming products for layers. This is unfortunate as especially layers on free range, and particularly in view of their longer lifespan, do need to be dewormed every 6 months. Hence deworming products registered for other animals, e.g. cows and sheep, have to be used without guidelines for a safe withdrawal period or the safety of the birds themselves.

Layer pelletsWhat really separates layer feeds from other poultry feeds is the high levels of calcium in the feed. This is necessary to provide the large amounts of calcium hens require for the formation of the egg shell.

Note that layer feeds are not organic and if you wish to produce organic poultry products, your enterprise can be disqualified due to your use of commercial feeds. Go Top

Mixed Grain

Feeding mixed grain, particularly when allowing your birds to be free ranging during the day, provides a much more tasty and nutritious egg than the eggs from industrially produced eggs. Mixed grain rations are generally also free of added chemicals.

The problem is not enough calcium.Mixed grain

If the eggshells become too soft, it is a sign of a calcium shortage in the diet and extra calcium such as crushed oyster shell, available from pet shops, should be provided. It is also a good idea to let the eggshells of used eggs and hatched chicks dry out, crush them and feed them back to the chickens. Feed in a separate dish birds can access at will. Not drying the used shells properly can lead to the annoying habit of egg-eating by the birds. Go Top

What to Feed, When

Breeder Flocks Go Top

In breeder flocks it is sometimes necessary to provide an alternative feed for the males. They do not need the high calcium levels as required by the females. Mixed grain is a viable alternative and should be placed high up out of reach of the females, but where the males can still reach the feed. Not doing so places the males at risk of early sterility, kidney and other problems caused by an excessive intake of calcium.

Breeder feeding systemIn a breeding setup where breeding females are confined to a cage, a permanent diet of commercial layer feeds can cause egg shells to become too hard. This may lead to a higher chick mortality at hatching due to chicks unable to break out of their shells. To avoid this problem, mix the layer pellets with mixed grain.

Breeder flocks that are free ranging have access to a much broader diet such as insects, worms and vegetable material and should not be subject to these problems. Supplementing with commercial layer pallets on an ad lib basis provides a well balanced feed.

Keeping breeder flocks in a free range system using mobile cages is in our opinion the most efficient system. Continuous moving of the cage prevents a build-up of disease as well as various parasites such as worms and coccidia that are inevitable in stationary cages.


Lllustration of mobile chicken coup system

A self-contained mobile cage system manufactured by Grehenheim Poultry. The solar panel controls the automatic lighting system that provides a minimum of 16 hours light during the period of the year when day-length reduces; which in turn reduces egg production. Light control is therefore necessary to ensure constant egg production during the winter months. Go Top

Backyard ChickensBackyard chickens`

Chickens will eat almost anything. They are not vegetarian, but omnivore. That is, they eat both meat and vegetable material. In short, almost anything left over from the kitchen can be fed to the chickens; even coffee grinds and left over bits of meat.

We use nonpoisonous fly traps made from coke bottles and so-called "Red Top®" fly traps available from any hardware store. The best fly bait to use is the fly bait provided by Red Top®, which we also use in our coke-bottle traps. When full of flies, the flies are remove from the traps, dried and fed back to the chickens. This is an excellent protein source for chickens.

On our farm we produce our own milk. The cows are supplement-fed from the chicken manure of growing chicks, which also happens to contain a lot of waisted feed. We let the excess milk go thick and feed it to the chickens. Go Top

How to Feed

Baby Chicks

Baby chick eatingNewly hatched baby chicks contain yolk that can nourish them up to 48 hours after hatching. That is why it is desirable to transport chicks that have to travel a long way as soon as possible after hatching.

Naturally hatched chicks will learn from the mother what and how to eat. Incubator hatched chicks do not have this advantage and will learn by trial and error, controlled only by instinct. This is one of the reasons why the mortality of incubator hatched chicks are higher than naturally hatched chicks. For one thing, they peck and eat at each others' faeces. Chick feeder

Provide open pans on the floor of the rearing pen, also manufactured by Poltek®, in which the baby chicks can scratch and experiment while learning to eat through trial and error. Sprinkle a little course sand on the floor which the chicks can ingest and which will assist digestion in the crop through mechanical digestion.

Hinged chick feederAt about three weeks of age it will become necessary to curb the wastage encountered with the open pan chick feeders illustrated above. Replace them with a product similar to the Poltek® "hinged feedsaver".



Bottle drinkerBaby chicks do not drink efficiently from drinking nipples and have to be provided with a traditional drinking fountain such as the one manufactured by Poltek® and displayed here. We provide both as the water in the nipple drinking system will remain clean for longer. For the drinking nipple system, which we make ourselves, we use a coke bottle with the base cut out and a drinking nipple in the bottle-top. This then fits into an adjustable stand that can be elevated as the chicks grow. Not opening the base of the bottle can lead to a vacuum which will prevent water flowing out through the drinking nipple.

Replace the water in the drinking fountain on a daily basis and clean it at least three times a day by swirling out the dirty water in the drinking trough.

Particularly borehole water can be kept fresh and fungi free for longer by adding 1 ml Milton/2 Lt water. Milton is used to sterilize human baby bottles and can be found in most stores and supermarkets where baby products are sold.


Chick drinkerProvide an anti-drown ring (also by Poltek®) for newly hatched chicks for the first three days after hatching to prevent drowning. Make sure the ring is pushed well down and fitted the correct way round so that the chicks can reach the water.




Go Top

Juveniles and AdultsTube feeder

We use hanging tube feeders manufactured by Poltek®. Hanging it prevents rats getting into the feeder. The height of the feeder is adjusted to the same level as the backs of the smallest females. It is very important to make sure your feeder has a lid that prevents chickens sitting on it and defecating into the feed. This would be a surefire way of causing a coccidiosis problem. An anti-waste ring is also important as chickens will flick the feed out of the feeder in their attempts to get at the more tasty bits. You can loose as much as 30% due to such wastage.

If there is undue wastage, lift the feeder up out of reach of the chickens to force them to eat the wasted feed off the floor. Once cleared, drop the feeder again.

For water we initially used Poltek's automatic hanging bell drinkers. Although effective, they can be time consuming to keep clean and maintenances can be a problem. We have subsequently designed and manufactured our own nipple drinker system which is easy to keep clean and which has a very low maintenance.

Both these drinkers types require a very low water pressure.

Nippl;e drinker large

The low maintenance nipple drinker designed and manufactured by us. It is height adjustable, has an integrated drip tray and can be opened on both sides to flush if necessary. The drip tray not only prevents the messing of water on the ground, but also provides an alternative water source for fowls not partial to nipple drinkers. A Poltek® bell drinker and tube feeder can be seen in the background.Go Top

© Frikkie & Sonia van Kraayenburg 2018